Early Man

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor and some action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Copyright 2018 Summit

Even lesser Aardman is still worth watching. “Early Man” is decidedly lesser Aardman than the sublime “Wallace and Gromit” series and “Shaun the Sheep,” but that still makes it a pleasant little treat.

The “early men” are Stone Age denizens Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his friends, led by the Chief (Timothy Spall), who appears to be quite elderly, but that’s by Stone Age standards. He’s in his 30’s. These people are extremely primitive. They live in caves and their most advanced technology is Flintstones-style use of animals (beetles as hair clippers, tiny crocodiles as clothespins for what barely, and I mean that literally, qualify as clothes). They are not quite sure what it means to be human, and I mean that literally as well. One “member” of their group is a boulder they refer to as “Mr. Rock.” They barely qualify as hunter/gatherers. While they go out with spears every day to try to get rabbits to eat, they are not very good at communicating with each other, or aiming, or hitting anything they aim at.

And then one day their idyllic little territory is invaded by a group riding armor-clad mammoths. It is the Bronze Age and they want to take over the area for mining. Ultimately, it will come down to an unusual but rather progressive way for solving border disputes: a soccer game (which they call football). On one side, champions who are highly skilled professionals with lots of experience but are arrogant prima donnas. On the other side, a bunch of people who have not yet invented the wheel and have never played before. But they have two advantages: a gifted Bronze Age player who has never been allowed on the field because she is a woman (now you know why we call sexism prehistoric), and, just possibly, the ability to work together as a team.

I am a devoted Anglophile, but got the strong sense that some of the references went past me and are only understandable to true insiders, especially those who follow soccer, I mean football. Some of Aardman’s quirky whimsy flickers in now and then. The opening title cards tell us when and where we are: “The Neo-Pleistocene Era”/“near Manchester”/“around lunchtime”). The message bird played by “The Trip’s” Rob Brydon is very funny, too, and the tactile, bug-eyed goofiness of the Aardman characters is always endearing.

Parents should know that there is some comic peril and violence and threatened more serious violence as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did the Bronze Age community develop when the Stone Age did not? Will the Stone Age people try to get some of the advantages of the Bronze Age? Why did learning about the past make them doubt themselves?

If you like this, try: “The Crudes” and the “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep” series

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The Party

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 11:50 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Satiric violence including punches, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Rhodeside Attractions
“The Party” is a short, savagely funny, black and white film from writer/director Sally Potter with an all-star cast moving at light speed through a real-time gathering that goes very quickly from a celebration to a political and emotional bloodbath.

It does start out as a party. Hostess and honoree Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just achieved her professional goal by being appointed to the British cabinet position overseeing health care. She is busy in the kitchen making vol au vent, barely aware of her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), who is sitting dolefully in the living room, playing jazz on old-school analog LPs.

The guests start to arrive. Janet’s oldest friend April (Patricia Clarkson) is a sharp-tongued cynic, escorted by Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a German believer in spiritual healing who calls Western medicine “voodoo.” April continuously demeans him, explaining that they are about to break up. Martha (Cherry Jones) is Janet’s political ally, but she will soon be distracted by news from her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer). Everyone is so distracted that they barely notice Tom (Cillian Murphy), who works in finance and arrives ahead of his wife Marianne and immediately goes to the bathroom to snort some cocaine. Also, he has a gun.

As the vol au vent burns, a daisy chain of accusation, recrimination, confession, and betrayal rocks the group and challenges their most fundamental notions of who they are as individuals, as upholders of particular political views that they consider essential parts of themselves, and as people who thought they understood their connections to each other.

It’s in stunning black and white, but we imagine the shower of virtual crimson blood from the verbal rapier thrusts and real-life punches at this most savage of celebrations. What is intended to be a small gathering of close friends to congratulate the hostess on her important new cabinet position unfolds in real time as series of attacks, revelations, betrayals, and, yes, political metaphors. Brilliantly performed by some of the greatest actors from both sides of the Atlantic with dialog that crackles like static electricity, it is directed at the high speed of a drawing room comedy but with knowing, devastating impact by Potter.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and explicit language and many tense and unhappy confrontations. Characters drink and use drugs and threaten gun violence.

Family discussion: Is Janet a hypocrite about healthcare when she responds to Bill’s announcement? Why is it hard for Martha to respond the way Jinny wants her to? Why did Tom come to the party?

If you like this, try: Potter’s other films, including “Yes,” “Orlando,” and “The Tango Lesson”

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Peter Rabbit

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:11 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, explosions, electrocutions, references to sad parental deaths and killing animals, human character collapses and dies
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018

Copyright 2017 Sony
We’re only six weeks in, and we’ve already had two live action/animation adaptations of beloved British classics of children’s literature, both starring members of the Gleeson family. One will go down in history as an example of how to do it right and the other, if it must remembered at all, will be the example of how to do it wrong. For the record, Paddington 2, starring Brendan Gleeson, captured the gentle charm of the stories because it trusted its source material and it trusted its audience. But “Peter Rabbit,” based on the books and paintings by Beatrix Potter, tries to make the classic story of a bunny who ignores his mother’s warning and almost gets caught by the farmer when he steals into the garden into a hyped-up, wink-at-the-crowd mess of slapstick, meta-narrative, and story of love and redemption. By trying to be contemporary, it loses the very qualities that have made it beloved in generations of nurseries.

As in the original book, before the story begins Peter’s father was captured by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and eaten in a pie. Unlike the book, Peter’s mother is gone, too, and he is responsible for his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny. Peter (voice of James Corden) is reckless and over-confident, leading Benjamin into the garden, which McGregor has covered with scary-looking steel traps. “There are other ways to get a meal,” he’s warned. “But not as fun!” Peter says, happy to risk not just his own life, but the others’ as well.

Peter deftly avoids the traps, but almost ends up in a pie himself, escaping by slipping out of his denim jacket, which McGregor uses on a (tiny) scarecrow. Aiding his rescue is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (as in Beatrix Potter), a sweet-spirited artist who lives next door and is a friend to all of the local animals.

When Peter goes back to retrieve his jacket, McGregor catches him. It is almost too late for him to save himself when suddenly McGregor, like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” has a sudden heart attack in the garden, collapses and dies. Though Peter takes credit for vanquishing his foe, the narrator (Margot Robbie) assures us that his death is attributable to “78 years of bad lifestyle choices,” with a merry little montage of McGregor inhaling asbestos and eating high-fat food. Really?

This, of course, is not in the book, is completely unnecessary to the storyline, and is likely to raise concerns in some of the young viewers, especially after Peter brags that he made it happen.

The property is inherited by another Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a persnickety control-freak of a great-nephew who barely knew he had a great-uncle with a farm and never met him. Thomas McGregor works for the famous Harrods department store, where he has a complete meltdown after being denied a promotion due to nepotism. If all of this seems superficial and unnecessary, that is because it is.

His arrival at the farm brings mayhem as he battles Peter and the rest of the local critters for the vegetable garden and the house, trying not to let his pretty neighbor know that he is not as much of an animal-lover as she is.

The movie opens with soaring birds singing an uplifting ballad — and then getting smushed, which becomes a repeated gag. So from the beginning, this film undercuts itself, winking at the audience and then trying to take it back. A joke about today’s parents’ oversensitivity to allergies is followed by “just kidding; don’t write letters!” “Don’t explain the joke,” Benjamin Bunny says. But that’s just what the movie does, constantly unsure of its focus and tone. Some sweet moments and lovely animation cannot make up for a film that is, to use a food metaphor, overstuffed and yet undernourished.

Parents should know that this movie includes some comic peril and violence, but a human character collapses and dies and there are references to the sad loss of Peter Rabbit’s parents, including his father’s being made into a pie, brief potty humor, some body shaming, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What did the characters learn about apologizing? Should farmers let animals eat their crops? What is your character flaw?

If you like this, try: “Babe,” “Paddington” and “Paddington 2,” and “Miss Potter,” with as Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher

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The Best Show on Network Television is The Good Place

Posted on February 5, 2018 at 11:17 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool

Copyright 2017 Fremulon
My favorite network television series is “The Good Place,” which had one of the all-time great twists at the end of the first season and has just completed its even-better second season. Everyone in it is superb, from experienced actors Kristen Bell and Ted Danson to newcomers Jameela Jamil (in her first professional acting role), Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper (you can see him on “The Electric Company” and in the movie “Paterson”), and D’Arcy Carden.

While we wait impatiently for the third season (that last episode opened up some very intriguing possibilities), here are some thoughtful takes on the show.

In the New York Times, James Poniewozik writes about the series’ refreshing optimism, contrary to the trend of the past few years toward antiheroes.

He says it “avoided falling into easy moralizing by committing to the idea that becoming good is hard work,” including “a running crash course in remedial ethics, with the most madcap name-dropping of the greats of moral thought since Monty Python’s ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song.’…orality is not something you have; it’s something you do. It’s a muscle that requires exercise. The show shares with dramas like “Breaking Bad” the belief that being good is hard. But it doesn’t believe that being good is futile.”

At Vulture, Josef Adalian writes about the connection between “The Good Place” and “Lost.”

“The Good Place” showrunner Michael Schur says he asked to be set up on a “playdate” with “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof.

The thing that Damon did for me, which I was very grateful for, the greatest thing anyone any writer can do for another writer, which is to say, “Here are, like, 12 pitfalls you’re about to fall into,” which is exactly what I needed. I needed a person who is conversant in the language of science fiction or genre writing, which I am not, to say to me, “Here are some things that are gonna happen that are dangerous. Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s how to avoid it.” So that was a huge part of how I operated going forward.

He also reveals some details inspired by or in tribute to Lindelof.

My friend and fellow critic Jen Chaney, a big fan of both shows, really drilled down on the connections for Vulture.

There are so many things that make ‘The Good Place’ a rich and delightful experience: the performances delivered by its talented cast, its constant use of inspired puns, the fact that it has created an entire new genre of comedy known as Jacksonville Jaguars Humor. But from the very beginning, ever since creator Mike Schur said that he was partly inspired by ‘Lost’ when he set out to make this series, it has been fascinating to watch the ways in which ‘The Good Place’ uses that ABC series as a touchstone. Some of the parallels between the two shows are obvious. When “The Good Place” began, it was about a group of people who landed in an unknown place and had to learn the rules that governed it while also making their own rules in order to survive, if “survive” is a word that can be used within the context of the afterlife. That’s exactly what happened to the survivors who crashed on the island in “Lost.”

“The Good Place” may just inspire fans to try to be a bit better themselves, and not just to avoid The Bad Place. It might even inspire a few to try some moral philosophy, though if they have been watching the show they have already learned that too much thinking about ethical dilemmas can also be a problem. I guess for the answer to that one, we’ll have to wait for Season Three.

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Comedy Spiritual films Television

Cook-Off

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:16 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Take one “British Baking Show” and add a cup of Christopher Guest improvised mockumentary, a lot of processed food products, a gallon of ambition, romantic complications, sibling rivalry, and a muffin-head-wearing mascot, and let it marinate for a decade and you’ve got “Cook-Off,” a very funny movie made ten years ago but just now being released in theaters. Its stars include Melissa McCarthy, Niecy Nash, Diedrich Bader, and the late Marcia Wallace. It has all the ingredients for a tasty little entertainment.

Like Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” this is a story about middle-class Americans passionately seeking to outdo each other, with a gallery of brilliant improv actors making small fights into a cutthroat competition. It takes place at a Pillsbury Bake-Off-style cooking contest with co-screenwriters Cathryn Michon and Wendi McLendon-Covey playing sisters Sharon and Pauline Solfest, who work together selling sex toys to married Lutheran women at home but have both qualified for the competition. Sharon (Michon), whose many different hairpieces are a hoot, is outgoing and outspoken, engaged to Lars Hagerbakke (Gary Anthony Williams), who is a bit confused about his identity, in part because he is a black man adopted by a white Swedish family. Her sister Pauline (McLendon-Covey) is withdrawn and shy, but don’t count out her creamed corn.

Also in the competition are Ladybug Briggs (Niecy Nash), the wheelchair-confined mother of a part-time preacher, the very, very pregnant Patty (Romy Rosemount), and the first-ever male contestant (Dietrich Bader), who just happens to be engaged to a former contestant who, after making it to the finals three times, is no longer eligible to compete, raising questions about the legitimacy of her fiance’s entry. Amber Strang (McCarthy with her real-life husband Ben Falcone) arrives too late but wear everyone down with their elaborate explanations and get to compete as well. And a hard-driving realtor is the Mama Rose of the competition, pushing her daughter like she’s selling a house. Meanwhile, Gavin McLeod and Marcia Wallace play themselves as the celebrity judges and the sponsor’s mascot, the guy with the muffin head, is wandering around contributing to the sense of happy (at least for us in the audience if not the characters) chaos.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, some crude sexual references and drinking.

Family discussion: Which contestant were you rooting for? What’s your signature dish?

If you like this, try: “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”

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